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The Creative City Challenge: Public Art with Lasting Influence?

Minneapolis Convention Center plaza, courtesy Kristin Maywire, Urbain DRC

Minneapolis Convention Center plaza, courtesy MCC

MIMMI, by Jack Cochran, courtesy Urbain DRC

MIMMI during the day, courtesy MCC

MIMMI on the plaza at night, courtesy MCC

If you’re heading to the Minneapolis Convention Center in the next few months, you’ll probably stick to the cozy confines of the skyway that crosses 12th Street and 2nd Avenue. That’s for the best. The convention center’s most notable outdoor feature, the broad plaza that occupies most of the irregularly shaped block between 2nd Avenue and Marquette Avenue, isn’t much to look at in the winter.

Come spring, however, things will change—and not just the weather. The project that wins the second annual Creative City Challenge (CCC)–a public art collaboration between the City of Minneapolis and its Culture and Creative Economy Program, Minneapolis Convention Center (MCC), Meet Minneapolis, Northern Spark Arts Festival, and NorthernLights.mn—will be unveiled on June 14 during Northern Spark. A public voting process begins February 3.

Public art and “programmable” spaces—high-traffic gathering spots, like the convention center’s plaza, that are natural fits for scheduled festivals and events like Northern Spark—are crucial for generating interest and engagement in the surrounding areas, but they may not be enough. Prof. Robert Adams of the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture, and a member of the contest jury this year says, however, that larger-scale initiatives must complement these lively pockets of creative and social energy—such as the Creative City Challenge.


Last year’s winner was the “Minneapolis Interactive Macro-Mood Installation,” or MIMMI. Designed by Urbain DRC, a Minneapolis design and visualization company, and INVIVIA, a design and technology research lab based in Cambridge, Mass., MIMMI was an “emotional gateway to Minneapolis” that occupied the convention center’s plaza between mid-June and mid-October 2013.

The ring-shaped raft, which floated above the plaza, incorporated complex sensing equipment to “sample” and respond to the city’s collective mood, mostly by analyzing pedestrian and vehicle movements and then changing color or spraying water mist in response. MIMMI’s eerie purple and pink hues were especially striking at night, when revelers would make their way out of the convention center or down Nicollet Mall to see what the fuss was about.

Despite its unsurprising inability to cope with strong winds, MIMMI drew record crowds to the convention center and anchored a handful of programs throughout the summer. After the unveiling and installation of this year’s CCC winner, city residents and visitors can again enjoy access to a world-class work of interactive art outside the convention center.

A gateway, an art destination

The convention center started the CCC last year to help bring greater international visibility to Minneapolis. “The convention center is a gateway for thousands of people from outside of Minneapolis,” says Jeff Johnson, the convention center’s executive director. “The plaza can act as a catalyst for exploration of our city by drawing people outside and through the space.” Ultimately, he says, public art on the plaza “help[s] the outside world understand more about how wonderful Minneapolis truly is.”

Prof. Robert Adams of the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture, and a member of the contest jury that narrowed the list of CCC finalists down to three for this year’s challenge, is blunter. “The convention center appears like an island with a distinct border around it,” he says. “People from the neighborhood [may] pass through the spaces, but the spaces are abstract and alienating.”

Building awareness

Last year, 16 interdisciplinary teams competed for CCC’s $75,000 award, which covers artist fees, installation, and de-installation costs. This year, 13 teams are competing. “For such a significant award,” says Adams, “I was surprised that there weren’t more entrants.” Increasing awareness—among residents and potential entrants—may be CCC’s primary challenge this year.

Prof. Julia Robinson of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design is one of this year’s jurors. She wasn’t aware of the contest until she was contacted to serve on its jury. “It was interesting to see the range of people and ideas” that came across the jury’s desk, she says, but “I could think of several colleagues who would have been interested in applying,” had they known about CCC.

Collaborators Amanda Lovelee (Artist in Residence for the City of St. Paul), Sarah West (a multi-disciplinary artist with experience in set design, architecture, and site-specific art), Christopher Field (interactive new-media artist), and Kyle Waites (professional set and lighting designer) submitted this year’s “Balancing Ground” proposal. The team found out about the gig through mnartists.org, a website/magazine for local creatives, even though they were aware of the project last year.

CCC’s website identifies two main objectives for the art installations: To “draw residents of the city to the MCC as a vital gathering space for the surrounding area” and to “provide a compelling gathering site for the MCC's thousands of visitors” during the warm months. Within that framework, entrants are expected to craft “eco-focused, site-specific commissions” that draw pedestrians from the convention center’s doors, through the plaza, and into the heart of downtown.

The ultimate goal of the competition, according to its website? “To position Minneapolis as a national and international center for creativity and design.”

Like CCC’s nuts-and-bolts requirements, the jury’s selection process was straightforward. “My assumption is that the public vote will be more about aesthetics and appeal,” says Johnson, “so we made sure that the jury focused on the project’s viability and the goals we set forth with the competition.” To that end, the jury selected three finalists with durable, engaging designs that encourage viewers—as participants—to think outside the box.

“I think the most effective proposals were the ones that diversified the scope of the competition,” says Adams. “How the work could be performed during a weekend festival was just as important as what work the project could be doing when no one is there.”

MIMMI’s potential successors

Wil and Jerry Natzel, an engineer-architect duo who also happen to be father and son, proposed “Chrysalis,” which CCC’s website describes as “an assemblage of deployable elements: a series of entry archways, a communal seating court, and a tower pavilion.” Inside the central pavilion space, an “overhead explosion of baroque pattern, light and decoration” will change configuration from month to month.

Will Peterson (exhibit designer, music teacher, firefighter, technical writer, archaeologist, wine grower), Trygve Nordberg (programmer, interaction designer), Bill Ferenc (illustrator, graphic designer) and Melissa Gagner (video producer), proposed a “colony” of wirelessly linked, autonomous “human-sized flower components” comprising a “sentient park.” The project, called “SPark,” according to the CCC’s writeup, “responds to visitors with movement and light… through different interactions, visitors will be able to make ‘SPark’ move, pulse and breathe.”

The “Balancing Ground” proposal finds four Northern Spark veterans working on their most ambitious project to date: a central core of wooden benches and playground see-saws surrounded by “a large wood structure with a canopy of prisms and reflective fragments strung between the rafters,” according to CCC. “The concept of balance seemed like an appropriate conceptual beacon for our project,” says Lovelee. “How do people go about achieving balance in their lives? What does balance mean within different communities…in Minnesota?”

“Balancing Ground,” in which the see-saws are rigged to trigger audio feedback with each movement, lets each participant create their own sense of balance–or unbalance, as the case may be. Lovelee and crew don’t want to oversell their vision, but they do want “Balancing Ground” to “evoke the reflective spaces of religious structures,” she says, “where there is the possibility to have [an epiphany] whether the place is full or you’re the only one there.”

A model of lasting influence

Will this year’s project have an impact on the MCC’s plaza and the surrounding neighborhood? Adams believes the plaza’s current relationship to the rest of downtown suggests that the city—and its creative community—can do more to realize engaging, “programmable,” and pedestrian-friendly spaces. Practically speaking, this means zoning changes. “I’d love to see the [pending] redesign of Nicollet Mall bend its attention to include the convention center,” he says.

Still, Minneapolis punches above its weight when it comes to public art. Marc Pally, the jury’s self-described “outsider” (he hails from Santa Monica, Calif.), credits Minneapolis for “its willingness to explore new ways in which the [people] can enjoy and experience its public spaces.” Decision-makers like Johnson and Steve Dietz, Northern Lights’ president/creative director, understand “how essential it is for visitors to have a sense of a city's soul and vitality through its public art and civic design,” says Pally.  

For the project’s finalists, the plaza is a promising canvas. The four members of “Balancing Ground” have all spent time outside Minnesota, and they’re unanimous in their praise of the Twin Cities’ dynamic creative community. The Twin Cities has “a great art and design culture that isn’t necessarily confined to artists and designers,” says Lovelee. “It sort of pervades the whole city, more so than in other places.” This freewheeling backdrop, in turn, encourages the sort of experimentation and public confrontation that laypeople associate with much larger cities.

And that’s one more reason to be excited about the contest’s results. The Minneapolis Convention Center’s plaza isn’t the perfect embodiment of an always-active, always-challenging public space, but the talented minds behind Creative City Challenge are doing their part to turn it into an anchor for a busy district—and an embodiment of all that’s right in the world of urban design. With an enthusiastic, diverse, and hopefully expanding group of artists, designers, and technicians in their corner, it looks like nothing is off limits.

Brian Martucci is The Line's Innovation and Jobs News Editor.
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